Au revoir Montreal - but not before he is risen. Yes, the big JC, John Cleese, was in town a few days later than planned to head up a gala of Canadian and US comedians as opposed to leading out the British contingent he was meant to before a prostate complaint prevented him.
So was it worth the wait? Yes and no. Mainly no. The ex-Python came out on stage with an assistant wheeling a drip behind him, alluding to his recent illness, and then slipped immediately into the guise of the snooty Englishman who had nothing but disdain for his audience, essentially Basil Fawlty on tranquilisers, all snide but no anger: "I’m gutted to be back in this dump, this Gallic trashcan and cultural backwater introducing these ageing and desperate comedians but frankly I need the money."
Making no bones about his "costly and embittered divorce" with Alice Fay Eichelberger (who he described as the fruit of a union between Bernie Madoff and Heather Mills) he confirmed, without his tongue in his cheek necessarily, what many thought, by saying that the battle had prevented him from a more graceful end to his career.
So far so good for Cleese, then, as the sarcasm was working nicely. Meanwhile in terms of the acts themselves there were just a couple of stand out performances for my money. One of them was Bobcat Goldthwait who was Zed in the Police Academy movies. Remember the one with the really screechy voice? No, really, he’s a good stand up and has been doing it as far back as his halcyon Police Academy days earning a placing of 61st in cable channel Comedy Central’s poll. The screech is still there in some form for the 47-year-old but he looks a little different, and he knows it as he tells the audience "you don’t look the same either."
Many of Bobcat’s jokes centre around celebrity encounters, garnered from a regular seam of film and TV work, but they still feel inclusive rather than "look at my minor celebrity life." That said he’s still obviously "psyched" about setting fire to the set on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1994 partly because it brought him close to fellow rabble-rouser Johnny Depp. Depp apparently told Bobcat of his trashing of a room at New York’s exclusive Mark hotel: "in my defence the hotel room made the first move."
The act finished with a story of Bobcat travelling on the same plane with the US Special Olympic team ("at least I think they were either that or they were a really big hip-hop group with Down syndrome") and the happy reaction from one of them that a forced landing would mean being greeted by a fire truck. "Don’t deny that mentally challenged people can be funny too," he signed off.
It was around about this point in the evening that Cleese’s contribution faced a challenge that wasn’t so funny - that of bad writing. The British comedy legend already looked a little pale and a sketch about holding a telethon to renew his fortune in the face of his draining divorce didn’t do anything to put the colour back in his or anyone else’s cheeks. "$5 from Eric Idle. Bless you. You cheap prick," was one of the ensuing lines and mildly amusing but pretending that he was putting his hand into a bowler hat full of glass was about as comedically convincing as the fake blood that squirted forth.
Next his "Auntie Claris" joins him on stage and someone "phones in" that she should kick him in the nuts before they donate, but he shoots her before she can do it. These were dead sketches with no parrots to be seen. No parrots, maybe, but there was a woman standing up near the stage who wasn’t an audience plant and who clearly wanted to adore the 69-year old comedian from a closer vantage point. That was quite funny. A look of worry momentarily passed across Cleese’s face but she eventually sat down, the sketch possibly having taken the shine off the hero-worship.
Next act up, Canadian Caroline Rhea, was still happy to meet John Cleese even after the car crash sketch, and duly brightened the place up a bit remarking of the him: "so mean and bitter and broke, I can’t believe I haven’t dated him." You may have seen Rhea in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I know I did, though it took me a little while to place her when I saw her having breakfast at the hotel where most of the acts and industry bods were staying at. Perky and easygoing Rhea dished out some good lines, if not entirely magic, noting that breast feeding while sucking your baby’s toes was "69 for new mothers."
Before Cleese’s last duff sketch closed the show (ok, I’ll tell you what it was, he tries to find a new wife, has to choose between three women in the style of the show The Batchelor but none will sign the pre-nup so he ends up with a transvestite, feel better for knowing now? Didn’t think so.) Louis CK came out and reminded us why he is America’s hottest comic right now, thus adding some meaning to the evening. (Well other than Bobcat Goldthwait of course. It’s been quite a week for retro what with Martin Short, Bill Cosby, and Police Academy alumni.).
CK’s heart doesn’t really beat to the mainstream thump offered by the Just for Laughs theme tune which gets audiences clapping like Pavlovian dogs (thereby both woofing and whooping it up) and the whole slightly cheesy (but mostly fun) gala shebang. So talking about the fact that there are many more dead people than the living who are people who are "not dead yet" would seem to nihilistic a start for this happy-go-lucky audience. "I don’t really know how to start shows" he says turning the whole intro on a dime. Gaining our trust CK is then allowed to criticise Americans for whingeing about "dumbass" problems such as why the ATM offers a choice of languages and being delayed taking off on a plane: "you’re about to participate in the miracle of human flight and bitch about it all the time you are up there."
The soundscape of the constant bitching of the privileged is making us all sounds like "fat eighth graders" and he describes being in a coffee house ("Starbucks or somewhere, you can only be in six places now") watching a man "secrete words out of his mouth" adding to the inanity of it all by overusing superlatives and "top shelf" exclamations: "Amazing? Can you be amazed by chicken wings?”"
Wings made of sterner stuff than chicken, I hope, await me for my flight home. While I am pondering the wonder of air travel I will no doubt be conjuring up some memories of my Just for Laughs experience. In the short amount of time before the Edinburgh Fringe starts I shall seek out some airport jokes and watch a lot of US sitcoms (like I don’t already) to help me "come down". It has been a blast and I hope that my ribs are tickled as much during the Fringe as they were here. Meanwhile, I hope that you, dear reader, have enjoyed these Montreal missives and have discovered some new comedians and some good laughs along the way.